I’m recycling more college material here. Heck if I know what made me write this story, but I did. It’s entitled “Not Between Friends”, and it, too, is copyright 1992 Brian J. Noggle.
Shelly and I had been friends for two and a half years, which was only two and a half years, but a lot of our lives to that point. We’re still friends, as far as I know, but subtle doubts and darknesses have crept into what our friendship was.
Shelly is a lesbian, which was the third thing I knew about her. The first thing I knew was that she was drop dead beautiful, at least to me at that time. Blonde hair clipped short, almost scalped. Long slender arms reached for mailbox 2B, and long trim legs carried up the stairs to apartment 2B, one floor above mine. The second thing I knew about her was her apartment number, and my first conclusion was that I would have to stop by sometime soon.
I did stop by the next morning, to borrow some sugar. I was new in the apartment building, so I thought it would be a good excuse to go around introducing myself, and I figured that asking to borrow a cup of sugar would be trite enough so that she would see through it and know I had an ulterior motive. So I rapped on her door at eight-oh-nine on that September morning.
“Hi, can I borrow a cup of sugar?” I asked when she opened the door, dressed in an oversized shirt and bunny slippers.
“A cup of sugar?” she asked. She was three quarters of the way made up. Her eyes were highlighted expertly, and I felt like I might wilt under their inquisitive gaze.
“Yeah, I know it sounds corny, but I just moved in downstairs, and when I stocked my apartment, I remembered the coffee, but I forgot the sugar. I just moved in downstairs. 1B. My name is Andrew Saroll, but people still call me Andy.”
“Nobody downstairs had any?” she asked, cocking her head to the side. Well, so much for the cover story.
“There was nobody downstairs I really wanted to introduce myself to,” I said.
“And you wanted to introduce yourself to me?” she asked.
“Why?” Point blank. No way to dodge a point blank question.
“I saw you getting your mail, and I said to myself, now there is the kind of woman you can settle down with in a small rural home and raise prize-winning samoyeds with. Or at least ask to a dinner in the most expensive restaurant I can afford. How about it? You free tonight, or tomorrow, or any time in October?”
She looked amused. Not a good sign. “I’d love a free dinner, but I’d hate to wreck your samoyed dreams. I wouldn’t be interested in settling down with you.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s nothing with you,” she said with a strange smile. “I’m a lesbian.” Another point-blank.
“Oh,” I said, “What a relief.”
“Most guys say ‘waste’.”
“Well, I am trying to project a mature viewpoint here. True beauty is never wasted.”
“So you’re a mature flatterer. I can handle that. So when is this free meal?”
I set it up for the following evening, and I did treat her to the most expensive restaurant I could afford, which happened to be one of those sit-down fast-food joints where the soup of the day is made several weeks in advance.
I did manage to get her name, Shelly Stevens, and her profession, telemarketer. She was just out of college, which put her one up on me, and she was very frank, which put her a second up on me. We got to be pretty good friends, which is an understatement, because she was the only friend I had in the building, and one of the few I had in the city I chose to make my collegiate home.
I met her before my sophomore year, back when I was young and cocky. It’s now the middle of the summer before my senior year, and I guess I’m still young, and maybe a little cockier now than I had been. During the two years before I left for my internship here in New York, like I said, we got to be pretty close.
It was Shelly who took me out to the bars when I turned twenty-one. We hit a few of the neighborhood bars, which were pretty jumping. We both managed to find our apartments, but if we hadn’t cooperated on finding our building, I don’t think either of us would have made it.
Some people might ask me how I became that good of friends with a lesbian, as if it were something strange or unholy, which I suppose it is to a lot of people. When you go back and try to find the reason you become friends with anybody, you can’t really trace it to a specific. I guess it was because we met, and we clicked. She told me that I was too long-term up front, that when I introduced myself to women with dreams of forever that I intimidated them. And such stuff.
There was no one better to go bar-hopping with. After my twenty-first birthday, I started hitting all the bars, in some hope of finding Miss Right or perfecting my game of 301. We would sit on our stools, backs to the bar, checking out the women. It was awkward at first to go in with a woman and look at others, but one time I watched some brunette out of the corner of my eye, and after she passed, I turned back toward Shelly a bit self-consciously. She nodded and said the brunette was pretty good, and I quickly got over my self-consciousness, after four or five such incidents.
She must have been glad to have me along, too. Being with a guy kept the other guys off of her, mostly. There were a few times I had to tell guys, mostly bigger than me, to screw, and every time except one they did. The one time he didn’t, well, it was painful for both of us, and he didn’t get Shelly anyway. She told me later that I shouldn’t have, but I told her I had to. I couldn’t have her be the more macho of the two of us. She laughed deeply.
She was my best friend for those two years, and I spent a lot of time crashed on her couch listening to her alternative bent of music and to her complaining of rude people she talked with at work. I’m probably idealizing those times now, and it wasn’t all that often that I did see her, only a couple of times a week, which for best friends is a bit low I would guess. I don’t know if she even considered me her best friend.
Then this letter came, the first one I have gotten from her since I started my internship. It came yesterday, two weeks before I leave to return to school. She didn’t put a return address on it, but I recognized her handwriting on the envelope when I got it out of the mailbox, and it was the first thing I opened when I got back to my cubicle of an apartment. It was the only thing I opened, I should add. I don’t get much mail.
“Dear Andy,” her blue ink said on the lavender stationery, “How are you? I am great! I did it! I am pregnant!” Which was good news, but not a surprise to me. I knew she had it in mind, which is probably why I hadn’t gotten a letter from her during my internship.
It was a rare warm day in March, and we were sitting on the front porch of our apartment building, watching the people go by on the street, like we had done many times before. Tika, Shelly’s companion and roommate for the last few months, was visiting her mother in Green Bay, and it was just Shelly and I, like in the old days. We were talking about the city, and the future. I had only a year left in college, and Shelly had only a few years left in her twenties. I was scared, but she wasn’t. Just wistful. I had paused after wondering what I would do with an English major and a Spanish minor and was taking time to watch a little red Fiero with a redhead slither down the street.
“I want to have kids,” she said, looking up into the tree in the yard.
“You always liked challenges,” I said.
“I’m serious,” she said slowly.
“Okay,” I said, switching gears. “You and Tika going to bring it up? Or just you?”
“Tika and I,” she said. “We haven’t talked much about it. I just mentioned it might be nice, and she agreed.”
“It’s a lot of responsibility.”
“What, do you think I’m not up to it? Or do you think I’m not capable because of my sexuality?”
“Whoa,” I said. “It’s Andrew Saroll you’re talking to. You can keep the indignity practice for someone who thinks it’s wrong. It’s just a lot of responsibility, a kid, that’s all I said.”
“Sorry,” she said. “It is.”
“If you’re ready for it, go for it.” We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Would you be the father?” she asked, strength back in her voice. Beating around the bush didn’t suit her.
“You want me to ….?” I asked. My first and second instinctive responses popped quickly. They were, I am ashamed to admit, an unveiled instinctive “All right! Yowza!” and then a quick “With Shelly?” sort of distaste because she was a friend or a lesbian, and then my first cognitive response was a sort of regret for both of them.
She looked a bit repulsed herself, but covered it quickly with her scientific disinterest. “No, I just wondered if you’d donate the semen for artificial insemination. I figured I’d rather have a kid something like you than like a total stranger. Keep it among friends, you know.”
I was quiet for a long time. Shelly waited for a response for some time before she got up from the railing around the porch. “Think about it a while,” she said before heading in.
I did think about it for a while. For about nine hours that night, until I was finally able to tumble into a dark and dreamless sleep. I thought about how much it probably meant to her to have me do this. She asked a friend, and she must have thought about it a lot. It wasn’t her norm to take so long to throw out an off-the-cuff question. She wanted me to be the father of her child.
I thought about being a father at twenty-two, and not really being a father at twenty-two. I wouldn’t have a hand in raising my child, and it might not even know I was its father. It would have Tika and Shelly, two mommies. I’d never thought much about gay marriage and gay couples raising children before then, so I didn’t have any handy rhetoric to fall back on. Not that it would have helped in a personal situation.
I’d hate to say no to Shelly. She’d think I didn’t trust her with my spawn or something, which was not entirely true, but I knew I couldn’t explain it away. As much as I didn’t want to do it to Shelly, I didn’t want to do it to the kid, either.
It’s traditional, I know, not wanting to banish a kid to life without a father. A real father. One that lives with them and is used by the mother as a real threat. Particularly if the kid was a boy, he’d need a role model, and as much as I like Shelly and tolerate Tika, neither one of them would teach him how to defend himself against the big fourth grader who would call his mothers dykes. And the fifth grader, and the sixth grader, and so on. I thought of my own childhood without a father, and I couldn’t be a party to putting a kid through the same hell. It wouldn’t even be that simple of a hell for the kid. My kid.
So, in the depths of the night, I decided that my mature and open new-consciousness was just a sham, and that I would not help my best friend with one of her greatest dreams. I worried about the consequence for a while before I drifted to sleep.
I don’t know if I consciously avoided her or not, but she seemed to guess my answer before it was spoken. She came down to my apartment three nights later. “Have you thought about it, Andy?” she asked, even though the expression on my face must have screamed that I had.
“I can’t, Shelly,” I said simply.
“Why?” she asked with a voice more level than I deserved.
“I just can’t” I said. There was no way to tell her without hurting her feelings. There was no way I was going to avoid hurting her feelings, but I hoped this way somehow hurt her less.
“And you’re not going to tell me why?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Okay,” she said, and we made some small talk for a while, and then she left. It wasn’t like old times, it was something different. Like someone flipped a switch, and the biggest thing that got me was that it was me.
Our friendship faltered after that. I told my land lady I wouldn’t be returning to her building. I left for New York City and the glamour of a magazine internship, but I left her my address out of a courtesy, I guess. I did not expect her to write, and there her letter sits, on the table next to my bed. My room is neat, because in two weeks I will head back to the city, to a different apartment, and to new friendships. I wonder if all will be forgiven, and I wonder if she knew who the father is. And I wonder why it matters so much to me.